When it comes to commentating soccer in the United States, Phil Schoen is one of the most well recognized names. He was the first voice of Major League Soccer, serving as the lead announcer for the first five years of MLS’s existence. He also also commentated games in three different World Cup tournaments and has had his commentary featured in the FIFA video game.
But when it comes to soccer these days, he’s most well known as the voice of LaLiga for the English-language broadcaster beIN SPORTS.
While on business recently in Miami, I had the chance to sit down with Phil Schoen to ask him questions about his art of commentating on The Beautiful Game.
Chris: Phil, the first question I have is from one of World Soccer Talk’s readers, Bill Reese. And Bill says, were you always comfortable being the straight man to Ray Hudson’s theatrics or did you grow into your partnership?
Phil: I would say you have to adapt or you get mowed down because Ray is Ray and he’s going to be who he is. And again, one thing just to elaborate on that point, some people think it’s an act. Some people think it’s over the top, but, and admittedly if there’s a soccer game on the passion’s up, the volume comes up a little bit closer to 11. But Ray is real. I mean, and I think that’s one reason that the fans appreciate that passion. I’ve had the chance to work with other commentators that can be a little bit over the top, but Ray more than anyone gives you that combination of the tactics along with the passion. And tactics are very, very important. But you also have to remember that it’s passion that drives the fans’ passion and it’s real.
And the one thing from my perspective growing up as a fan of the Big Four in North America and just understanding the different styles of those broadcasts before I even thought about being a broadcaster myself, I understand that a football announcer has a different style than a baseball announcer. A different style than a basketball or a hockey announcer. So he needs to be flexible. And I was able to commentate all of those earlier on in my career.
As far as being the straight man, maybe growing up watching so much Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges definitely helped. But I think it’s more, again, the fact that it is a game. And thankfully it’s very, very rare that a life depends upon who wins or loses. It’s a lot easier to go to sleep at night. And while it is important to respect the game for what it is and what it means, it’s also entertainment. It’s also enjoyment. And no one really likes when their team loses, but most of the time someone’s going to win, someone’s going to lose so our job over those two hours is to try and to entertain. And some of that is through the factual aspect, and some of that is just through perhaps the commentary between Ray and myself.
So I think it’s probably part of my style regardless of who I work with. But I think with Ray, he catches it. Maybe he appreciates it, and maybe he just magnifies it to the point as opposed to just give and take. It’s give and take and take and give and it just kind of goes from there. So I do think that I am a slightly different announcer when I’m working with someone other than Ray, but it’s probably just more the package than anything I’m doing.
Chris: Do you remember the first game you ever commentated with Ray? And if you listen to the audio of that, would it be similar to what we’re getting today or has it evolved over time?
Phil: I don’t remember if we had done any of the old A-League Fort Lauderdale Strikers games. I know I did some things with Thomas Rongen back then, but I don’t know if I actually worked with Ray. If I did, it was maybe once until the Miami Fusion. And I was able to meet with Ray through a mutual friend of ours, Jeff Rusnak. Our paths crossed. We would go out to dinner. I remember going to watch Ray with the Hollywood Wildcats when he was coaching. They couldn’t have been much older than 10 or 11 year olds, and they’re basically like a bunch of kids running around chasing them at knee level and he was having a blast. He was having a ball.
And like I said, what you hear is Ray. Maybe it’s turned up a tiny bit because Messi just beat 10 people, but from the very first day doing the Miami Fusion, and admittedly we didn’t have Messi, but we did have [Carlos] Valderrama. That was him. And maybe one thing that might have changed a little bit is back with the Fusion as an expansion team in that situation in that time period where really there wasn’t a whole bunch of entertainment going on. To the point now where again, thank God we have the luxury of calling Messi, calling Ronaldo, calling Ramos or Benzema or Neymar on a weekly basis. So something is going to happen that’s highlight material. And so maybe that gives us just a little bit more of an entertainment factor than back in the first days. But I don’t think it’d be that much different. I personally would not want to go too much further back in my broadcasting career and I hope those tapes were all burned [laughs], but I don’t think much has changed in 20 years.
Chris: So speaking of change, looking at LaLiga, you’ve been commentating games for many years before beIN SPORTS and GolTV. But if you compare the production level nowadays in LaLiga featuring the number of cameras, 360 degree angles, augmented reality and other types of technology, how has it changed from when you were beginning commentating LaLiga to what it is now?
Phil: I don’t know if it would be really that much more noticeable because you can only really have one camera on at a time.
I think, and in fact I just did some International Champions Cup Futures stuff in Bradenton where for some of the games I think there were three maybe four cameras, but they also had a drone which gave you different perspectives. And if you’re just sitting at home watching, you could have sworn there were like six or seven. Now, six or seven used to be the standard shoot for MLS. And if it’s any less than that, I do think you notice a static repetitiveness at times, especially if the camera positions aren’t the greatest, but even going back to the very beginning of of LaLiga, I think that the ability and the knowledge of the people putting the broadcast out was right up there with the NFL, right up there with baseball, NBA hockey, et cetera, that they had some of the best production elements in the world.
Technology has advanced since then, which means now they have more toys. And one thing I’ve learned by the way, dating back to Mike Cohen, who was the producer back in the start of the ESPN coverage of MLS. Just because you have a toy doesn’t mean you have to play with it. And I think sometimes there’s a tendency to want to overdo it with the latest technology. And I think that maybe with the 360 cam, some people think that might have gone over the top a little bit. Now I think fans like it when it pops up. Again, maybe because the technology has advanced that it’s a little less jittery. Going back to sky cams and go cams and everything else, microphones in the middle of the field. MLS, by the way, was probably at the forefront of many of these technologies that are now starting to take over a little bit more because fans want to be more involved.
I think as far as the modern game right now, I mean, it’s amazing when you consider it was like 30 or 40 cameras total for the last Clásico. And you don’t have to worry about tape decks anymore because everything is now digital, and there’s backups to backups. It’s phenomenal, and I could only imagine where things are going pretty soon. Ray and I are probably going to be sitting on the couch next year in some virtual reality, but if that’s the case make sure you have enough deep dish [pizza] for Ray.
Chris: What’s your opinion about LaLiga wanting to play League games in the United States. And they’ve mentioned Miami as a place that they’ve been trying to for a couple of years. Being the lead announcer for LaLiga on the English language side in the United States, is that something that you agree or disagree with?
Phil: I’d say I have mixed feelings. As a fan, it would be phenomenal to get a chance to experience that. And I’ve had the chance to go do Clásicos in Barcelona, Clásicos in Real Madrid. And I think that’s also something to consider because I’ve been at the Hard Rock Stadium when Barcelona was facing Chivas and there were 70,000 fans there. It was phenomenal. It’s not the same. Partly perhaps because it was an exhibition, but it’s also the fact that the hardcore fans — and there are some over here…there are some transplants… Growing up as an Arsenal fan, I don’t say I’d put myself up with whoever comes out of North London, but I’ve followed them since the days with Charlie George. I still can’t compare with the ones that would be popping on the tube and go to game-in, game-out for year after year from the time that their dad or granddad took them until now where they’re bringing their kids or grandkids.
There is something that’s missing when you transplant a game from its natural environment into an artificial one. However, if there is any place you can pull it off, it’s the United States. There is no better nation to live in if you’re a soccer fan than the United States because you can watch pretty much every league from every country on earth. I also think from a sporting perspective, I can understand why some of the clubs are against it because some team is going to lose a home game. And it could be Barcelona against Atletico Madrid. Even a very popular team. They come over here, the odds are 80% Barcelona fans if not more. And if that was an Atletico home game, that could affect a race, that could affect a title.
So I can understand from a sporting perspective why some would be against it. Obviously there’s other leagues like the NFL that continue to do it now with the talk of a 17th game. Who knows how many games are going to be played in Mexico, and Japan, and England, and beyond? There is a reason because you do want to grow the game. And that’s why LaLiga wants to do it. They’re trying to, I guess, one up the EPL who have some of the best marketing and management in any world sport. And LaLiga is trying to get one up on them and I can understand why I think it’s going to happen. I don’t know if it’s going to be game 37 or if it’s going to be, maybe everyone plays two outside. So everyone loses a home and an away game.
I think the main thing is to keep it fair. And if they can do that, if they can then also grow the fan base from a personal perspective, the more popular LaLiga is, the better it is for be in, the better it is for broadcasters, the better it is for soccer fans in the North America.
Chris: You travel a lot, and oftentimes you go to central America — Honduras and other places. Do you get to see how popular LaLiga is in that region of the world?
Phil: Well, I think obviously anywhere you go in Latin America, there’s going to be a connection. I think when I’ve been to Canada, it tends to be more on the English side and the Scottish side. Although that’s changing. The Italian side even, but that’s changing just again because of the dominance. Especially the decade where Cristiano and Lionel Messi were grabbing headlines. Now that Cristiano has moved on, maybe it’s come back a little bit. Messi getting a little bit older, I think people are starting to prepare for a transition. And while maybe you do end up having players that are jumping up like a Neymar, like an Mbappe, like a Haaland, they’re not in LaLiga at the moment.
Now in a year’s time, that could change. They could all three be there. But there is something about it and I think it goes beyond. There’s the old joke about England and the United States, two nations separated by the same language. You could say there’s part of that when you talk about Latinos and people from Spain, but I also think in many cases more than English there’s a bind, there’s a tie.
Then one of the strangest things that ever happened to me about five years ago on my first mission trip to Honduras, it’s an island off the coast called Roatan, which used to be an English colony. So there’s still a majority English speaking population, but there’s a lot of people that have come over from the mainland because that’s where some of the work is. So it’s a mix, English and Spanish. But basically somewhere I had never been.
I get off the plane, come through security with my bags and I’m walking. I swear it might even be before I made it out to the terminal, people are pointing at me. And I, first of all, I’m checking to make sure that my fly is done and they’re there. But it ended up people at that time recognizing me from The Locker Room [on beIN SPORTS] more than anything, because you don’t really get a chance to see us during the games, they had somehow been watching beIN SPORTS and were huge fans.
I mean people that were on the mission with me, they’re just like, they gave me this look as people would come up and go and ask my autograph. And one of the places we went to is an orphanage. We go there every single year and some of these kids are probably eight to 18 or so. Every single one had a soccer jersey on. Some of them would be wearing Olympia, some Motagua, but a lot of them were Real Madrid or Barcelona.
And they love the sport, they love watching it and I’m sure they’re still finding a way to watch it nowadays. I think it has more to do even more than just LaLiga, it’s just the passion for the sport. Maybe it’s going to change. Maybe it already is now within Mbappe, and Neymar. Maybe they’re all wearing PSG jerseys the next time I go down. But there’s no doubt the impact that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and their rivalry had, and LaLiga benefited and soccer benefited, but the love for the sport is not going to change.
You can catch Phil Schoen’s commentaries on beIN SPORTS. Phil is also available for voiceover work through his company VoiceGoals, Inc.